As the recently-opened movie Monuments Men plays around the country, there’s one macabre story you won’t see on the silver screen.
It’s about the remains of German leaders, including Frederick the Great and Frederick William I.
The Germans had hidden the caskets containing the bodies of the Fredericks and former Weimar President Paul von Hindenburg and his wife in a mine in a remote area to conceal them from the approaching Russian troops. But the war ended, and U.S. troops made it to the mine first and found the caskets. They were in a room divided into different compartments hung with brilliants flags.
Capt. Walker K. Hancock, an officer specialist with the Monuments Men, described the scene: “Crawling through the opening into the hidden room, I was at once forcibly struck with the realization that this was no ordinary deposit of works of art. The place had the aspect of a shrine . . . all suggested the setting for a modern pagan ritual.”
Naval Reserve Lt. George Stout, one of the foremost experts on art conservation, later described the casket in an oral history interview with the Archives of American Art in 1978. In the movie, Clooney’s character is based on Stout.
Along with the caskets were treasures from the Hohenzollern Museum in Berlin, including items used at the 1701 coronation of King Frederick I and Queen Sophie. U.S. troops found two swords with gold and silver scabbards, a jeweled scepter and orb, and two crowns.
But what did they do with the four caskets? This was no ordinary find; this involved high politics.
“It was perhaps one of the most unlikely and interesting World War II German cultural property evacuation endeavors,” writes Greg Bradsher, the National Archives’ expert on how the Nazis looted art and cultural effects from the nations of Europe. And Life magazine called it “one of the most curious and complicated enterprises” undertaken by the U.S. Army of occupation.
Bradsher reveals what happened to the caskets in “Monuments Men and Nazi Treasures” in a recent issue of Prologue magazine, the National Archives’ flagship publication.
The storyline of the movie might be new to audiences, but it’s a familiar plot for one of our archivists. Bradsher is a senior archivist specializing in World War II intelligence, looted assets, and war crimes and is a frequent contributor to Prologue, using documents from the National Archives.
Bradsher has been on this story for some time. In 1999, he wrote an article for Prologue called “Nazi Gold: The Merkers Mine Treasure.” It tells the story of the treasures that U.S. Army troops found in the Merkers Mine and recalls the day top U.S. commanders—Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton and others—went down into the mine to inspect what the Nazis had hidden there.
Don’t miss your chance to hear Bradsher talk about his archival research along with Robert M. Edsel, author of The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.
On February 19 at 7 p.m. in the McGowan Theater at the National Archives, Edsel will discuss his book and the film adaptation along with Bradsher and others. A book signing will follow the program.
(And if you need more Monuments Men, the Archives of American Art has just opened their new exhibit “Monuments Men: On the Frontline to Save Europe’s Art, 1942–1946.”)